Florida on Sunday reported a record 15,300 new coronavirus cases, the most by any state in a single day and a bleak sign of the United States’ failure to control the pandemic about six months after the first infection surfaced in the country.
The staggering number was the result of both increased testing and widespread community transmission that has affected the state’s population centers as well as its rural areas. It shattered previous highs of 11,694 reported by California last week and 11,571 reported by New York on April 15.
President Donald Trump on Saturday wore a mask in public for the first time, while visiting wounded service members and healthcare workers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Trump has previously shown disdain toward face coverings amid the coronavirus pandemic and refused to wear them.
Louisiana’s Democratic governor announced a new requirement that most people wear a mask in public. The state’s Republican lawmakers have opposed coronavirus restrictions.
Walt Disney World in Orlando reopened after having been shuttered for nearly four months, even as Florida continued to report record infections. Testing supplies in the state are running low, and some big labs are taking several days to return results, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference. He partly attributed the backlog to testing many asymptomatic people.
The latest spike puts Florida at the center of the country’s faltering pandemic response, highlighting the ongoing struggle of state governments to gain an edge on the virus as the White House maintains its largely hands-off approach to the public health crisis.
The seven-day average for daily new cases nationwide, considered a more reliable indicator of the virus’s impact, has risen almost 165 percent over the past month, from 20,594 in the second week of June to 54,499 at the end of last week, according to The Washington Post’s tracking.
The country’s daily death toll also increased last week after months of decline.
The Sunshine State has been at the forefront of the nationwide surge, with daily cases regularly exceeding 10,000 in July. An influx of coronavirus patients is straining Florida hospitals, and coronavirus-related deaths in the state are trending upward after leveling off in the late spring. Over the last week alone, Florida reported nearly 70,000 new cases, the most of any state.
Amid the soaring numbers, DeSantis has stuck to an aggressive reopening plan. State officials recently ordered schools to reopen five days a week in the new academic year, drawing objections from local leaders. The state is also set to hold the Republican National Convention next month in Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, an indoor facility that seats about 15,000.
DeSantis sought to project calm at his news conference Saturday, emphasizing that many new coronavirus patients were young and healthy.
“If you look at where the cases are coming from, a lot of the cases are in that between 15 and 54, which, as you can see, those are not the age groups that are producing significant fatalities,” he said. “In fact, if you are under 55, and you don’t have significant co-morbidities, the fatality rate for this is incredibly, incredibly low.”
He added that he believed the risk to schoolchildren was low, even though health experts say it remains unclear what role children and teenagers play in transmitting the virus. He also voiced concern about Florida’s rate of positive test results climbing into the double digits, saying, “This is something that we’re looking at very seriously.”
Shortly before Florida announced the new cases, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made rounds on Sunday news talk shows, where she continued to pressure schools to reopen.
In an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” DeVos said she would like to see closed schools be the “exception” rather than the norm. “The goal needs to be that kids are learning, full-time, this fall,” she said. “Kids need to get back in the classroom.”
Asked about surging caseloads in much of the country, she replied that schools could respond to “little flare-ups” in the future but that they should generally be open for full-time learning.
DeVos added on “Fox News Sunday” that the Trump administration was looking at “all the options” for pulling federal funding from schools that don’t open in the fall. “American investment in education is a promise to students and their families,” she said. “If schools aren’t going to reopen ... they shouldn’t get the funds.”
Her remarks drew swift criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., while the government health official in charge of testing signaled that the virus was still spreading too quickly to allow children to return to classrooms.
DeVos, Trump and other senior administration officials spent much of last week leaning on schools to reopen. They said children suffer academically as well as socially and emotionally when they are away from school and said remote learning this spring was a disaster for many families, points that outside experts also have made. And they said it was impossible for some parents to go back to work if their children are at home.
Trump allies also see a political imperative in convincing voters that the nation is recovering from the pandemic, which will be hard if millions of families’ lives are still upended by school closures.
Last week, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis estimated there are nearly 1.5 million teachers, about one in four, who are older than 65 or have health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness if they were to contract COVID-19. Asked about the finding, DeVos said that there are ways for teachers to continue to work and that districts should work with these teachers to “figure out the best scenario for those teachers.”
As to whether teachers should go into classrooms if they do not feel comfortable, DeVos said, “That’s something for them to work out with their local districts.”
Pelosi called DeVos’s message “malfeasance and dereliction of duty” and accused the Trump administration of “messing with the health of our children” in an interview with CNN on Sunday.
Pelosi urged Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to make sure schools had access to personal protective equipment as the academic year approaches. She also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should take the lead in mandating health guidelines, rather than just offering guidance.
State officials in Florida have already acted on the Trump administration’s demands, ordering last week that public schools fully reopen in August.
In Miami-Dade County, Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said students could return to classrooms six weeks from now if people adhered to restrictions such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. But the decision would require buy-in from the community and must be dictated by science, he said.
“We need the science to drive the practice rather than politics influencing what is legitimately a community concern,” Carvalho told NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” adding that the positivity rate in the county had gone from 6 percent to 29.1 percent in recent months.
Even in places that have not registered a sharp rise in new cases, officials are resisting instructions to bring students back. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said Sunday that his state would not be “rushed into” fully reopening schools, saying it would take a hybrid approach to learning during the pandemic.
“Everybody would like to get our kids back to school as quickly as we can, but we also want to do it and make sure our kids are going to be as safe as possible,” Hogan said during an appearance on “Meet The Press.”
Nationwide, new cases reached record levels in states across the country over the weekend, even as weekly testing plateaued.
Seven-day averages for new cases hit new highs in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Puerto Rico. Deaths were trending sharply upward in nearly every major region of the country.
New testing, meanwhile, is slowing nationwide after increasing throughout the spring. About 4.6 million diagnostic tests were administered in the United States last week, compared with about 4.5 million the previous week, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant health and human services secretary who is the government’s coronavirus testing coordinator, said Sunday that face masks were essential for slowing the virus spread, but he stopped short of calling for a national mandate.
“For this to work, we have to have, like, 90 percent of people wearing a mask in public, in the hot spot areas,” Giroir told ABC News’s “This Week.”
Giroir also pushed back against Trump’s criticism of the CDC’s guidance for schools, telling host George Stephanopoulos, “I think the CDC guidelines are really right on target.”
“When we get the virus more under control,” he said, “then we can really think about how we put children back in the classroom.”
He painted a dim picture of what’s to come in the months ahead, saying that he expects the number of hospitalizations and deaths to rise. He said the country would need “tens of millions of more tests a month” as seasonal respiratory infections return in the fall.
“We were hopeful that it would diminish in the summer, but we didn’t count on it,” Giroir said. “And, yes, there’s a possibility it could be worse in the fall, and we are all continuing to increase everything we do.”